Confessions by Kanae Minato first appeared in 2008. Mulholland Books published the English translation in 2014. Translations of novels by Asian authors fascinate me because of the difficulty of crossing both language and cultural lines. Readers may have reactions such as, “that could never happen here because…” and then the story loses meaning and becomes an object of curiosity rather than literature. That does not happen with this novel in part because of its universal themes. There is confession as a need to confess (guilt) and a desire to confess (pride). Inevitably, there will be back stories that lead to situations requiring confession. This novel relies on only three main characters to tell a complex tale. A second level has three characters. Characters outside the group of six are props and not well developed because there is no need to do so.
Names present a problem because characters are sometimes referred to by one word which could be a family name, a first name, a nickname, or a nickname that is used only for school colleagues. It is a small problem worth mentioning, and readers should not feel shy about going back a few pages for clarification. This difficulty became a problem for me because I listened to the audiobook available to me with a Scribd subscription. The novel has eight chapters and lasts six hours. I can sometimes only approximate the spelling of character names. Amazon offers the Kindle book download for USD 9.99.
Readers first meet teacher Moriguchi as she is meeting her seventh-grade class on the last day before Spring Break. She wants to tell them one final story before she retires. Moriguchi has only taught a total of seven years but explains that her early retirement was prompted by the death of her four-year-old daughter. Police ruled the drowning death accidental, but Moriguchi knows this is not true. Two children in the class killed her daughter. She knows this because one of them confessed to Moriguchi. From the confession, she knows the identity of the second boy. Police have closed the case, and although Manami’s mom could reopen the case of infant death, she has decided not to do so. Moriguchi knows the laws relating to juvenile punishment means the perpetrators would receive little in the way of meaningful sentences.
Moriguchi relates the story of the killing of daughter Manami without identifying the killers to the class by name. She will call them A and B. She will tell the class why law enforcement and judgments by courts are not enough. Moriguchi will say to the class that not only does she want revenge; she has set the revenge in motion during her presentation that day. The children had been drinking milk provided fee by a dairy company during the recent semester. All the children had finished their milk before hearing Moriguchi’s story. Because she knows the two students who were responsible for the death of her daughter, it was easy for Moriguchi to target two milk cartons and inject solutions designed to promote growth of the AIDS virus. Her revenge would continue for years.
Aside from the stories of characters, there is an examination of the Japanese education system, one that author Minato has accused of inverting the relationship between parents and students. Parents give rewards to students in return for good grades. Bad behavior by children is allowed if they only promise to study. In some households, children call parents by their first names. There are “cram schools” which children attend after returning home from daily school and after a meal. Children want to excel not to disappoint their parents. For children who don’t care about disappointing parents, a complex system of rewards serves as motivation.
There are several stories of dysfunctional families. In one, the birth mother reads technical engineering books and advanced literature to her four-year-old son. When he is less than perfect, she physically beats him. After a divorce, the abusive mother will become more agreeable. The son will grow to love her. She will abandon him to the custody of his father and promise to return whenever the son needs her help. She will never return.
In another family, the son can never make his mother proud. She encourages him a lot and intercedes with others when they fail to recognize his greatness. Eventually, she will become subservient to her son. The son’s father spends much time at work and is rarely seen.
Moriguchi is a single parent but maintains a complicated relationship with the father of her daughter Manami both before and after the child’s death.
I don’t want to post spoilers for this story. Describing the characters will result in spoilers. As a Western reader, I found it difficult to appreciate the complex bundle of children appearing in the story. Many children under thirteen years old, pubescent and pre-pubescent, look as adults trapped in child bodies. The casual acceptance of death at such an early age surprises me. Moriguchi, an adult teacher, surprises me also. She demonstrates an unbelievable acceptance of her child’s death and a desire to treat the killers fairly. As the story continues, childhood characters will evolve, but not by much. The story takes place in less than one year. Moriguchi will alter her views as well.
Readers will find enjoyment in the backstories of what led the characters to their eventual fates. There is a very satisfying surprise ending, which illustrates problems with the internet, boastful posts, and privacy issues. I highly recommend this five-star Amazon read or listen.